As the Premier League returns, is God a sports fan?
Like a child on Christmas eve, there are women and men across the world who can barely contain themselves. Football is back!
Soccer, for our American readers, is kind of a big deal here in the UK – and in pretty much every other corner of the globe.
The Premier League returns this weekend, pitting the giants of Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool against the relative minnows of Burnley and Watford.
Of course, those of us who support teams lower down the pyramid know that the real action started last week, but the eyes of the world will be on England this weekend when the alleged 'greatest league in the world' kicks off.
At the same time, the World Athletics Championships is taking place here in London. Elite athletes are pushing themselves to their limits and entertaining vast crowds in the Olympic stadium.
Seeing Usain Bolt, Mo Farah, Almaz Ayana and the rest has been a privilege for those of us fortunate enough to get tickets. London has felt like the centre of the universe again, in the way it did for those brief and glorious few weeks of the Olympic and Paralympic games of 2012.
When you add in the plethora of other sporting events taking place this weekend, it really is a feast. The US PGA golf, the Rogers Cup in tennis, Rugby League's Super League and so on...
What is it about sport that draws so many of us in as fans and participants? And what can it tell us about ourselves as a human species?
First, there's a central insight into who we are as humans that shines out during sport – and that we can find in the Christian tradition in spades. The idea is that we are not just isolated individuals, but instead we are part of a community. To paraphrase Genesis, we are our brother's keeper.
Team sport illustrates this best, whether it's the American Football team which needs a mixture of big guys, skillful guys and speedy guys, or the relay running team which passes the baton perfectly. The teamwork shows the central Christian insight that we cannot thrive as individuals – we actually need each other to live fulfilling lives. Even 'individual' sports such as cycling and Formula One require teamwork and a whole raft of support staff to help the individual succeed.
Second, there's something about healthy competition which gives us a good outlet for our desire to win. George Orwell said of sport: 'Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play, it is bound up with hatred and jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all the rules and sadistic pleasure in unnecessary violence. In other words it is war minus the shooting.'
This view is an uncharacteristic mis-step from Orwell. His last line may be right, but that's something to be celebrated rather than bemoaned. But more than that, he's just not right – witness the astonishing camaraderie between the teams on the recent British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand. Three brutal and bruising games of rugby came to an end with the players uniting in respect and admiration for each other.
This camaraderie can extend well beyond the field of play. That Olympic spirit from 2012 is a prime example. As a volunteer I spent much of the Games in and around the Olympic Park. The warm spirit on display was pretty astonishing for a hardened Londoner. It even spread out across the capital – people spoke to each other on public transport, an almost unprecedented experience. The spirit of the Games inspired many of us Brits who tend towards cynicism and showed, in a small way, that there's more that unites us than divides us.
Sport isn't perfect, of course. The Premier League, alongside its amazing sporting achievement, has not been good for football in England. It has turned the game into a plaything of rich people, often to the detriment of ordinary fans and their communities.
Drugs and other forms of cheating have also left their mark. The reception received by Justin Gatlin this week at the World Championships shows how damaging cheating is. The boos rang out as the man who's been found guilty of doping in the past returned to win a gold medal.
The Olympic spirit doesn't always kick in, either, English football's hooliganism problem in the '70s and '80s being the most obvious example.
For all those problems, I think there's a reason Paul uses sporting metaphors so often. 'Press on towards the goal,' he advises in Philippians 3. 'Physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way,' he writes in 1 Timothy. The writer to the Hebrews picks up this theme and, runs with it, so to speak: Llet us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.'
'Stop wasting time watching and caring about sport,' some critics will say in response to this piece. I think the best response to that comes from Rev Dr Lincoln Harvey in an article for the Times a couple of years ago. 'Creation is fundamentally unnecessary but deeply meaningful in character, and so are sporting events... we are playful creatures, unnecessary but endlessly loved into existence by the one true God.'